Insitu (a Boeing company) delivered the last of 21 RQ-21A BLACKJACK UAS (two aircraft per system) to the US Marine Corps last July and is increasingly focused on further developing capability for the rapidly maturing programme, MON learned on the first day of Surface Navy Association (SNA) 2020 in Virginia.
As the Group 3 UAS routinely supports deployed Marine Corps units, Don Williamson, Vice President and General Manager of Insitu Defense, reported “the deployed readiness rates (about 88% on the mission capable side) are among the highest in Marine Corps aviation. The US Navy-Marine Corps/Insitu team has done a fantastic job on return for readiness. RQ-21 BLACKJACK continues to perform operationally, as well.” Of note, as SNA convened this week, the UAS was supporting the eighth consecutive Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment.
With the programme providing high readiness rates for the service and the systems performing quite well operationally deployed, “we’re starting to take a look at operational capability. We’re at a natural inflection point on the programme, where we’re making that transition from readiness and reliability to capability,” Williamson observed.
MON has often reported on the increasing interest by other global UAS operators in increasing platform capability – in particular, addressing what appears to be an insatiable desire to bolster capabilities and, in some cases, payload size. Asked whether the current RQ-21 payload (40lbs/18kg) may similarly evolve and grow, Williamson commented “We’re doing a lot of work in the payload development arena – how to optimize that 40lbs. We are investigating a number of different payloads for the Marine Corps on how they could configure this aircraft to meet their changing mission needs,” then emphasized the modular nature of RQ-21 provides any operator with “many different options. For the short-term, the next 1-2 years, I don’t see the payload necessarily increasing much above 40 lbs.” One key payload provider is Oregon-based Hood Technology, providing full motion video sensors.
Another broad platform improvement on the OEM’s horizon is increasing the fuel payload on the baseline RQ-21, providing greater endurance, approximating the performance capability provided by the BLACKJACK Extended-Range variant.
Also on the RQ-21 US operator ledger is Naval Special Warfare Command, which has so far received 10 BLACKJACK systems and is starting to field this new capability.
Beyond the two US customers, the company is seeking additional programme growth opportunities through US Foreign Military Sales (FMS). The current RQ-21 FMS customers are Poland and Canada. Although unable to reveal specific nations, Williamson explained that “[…] we have two more, emerging RQ-21 programmes that we are pursuing. We should be able to close these in the next several months. And then we’re looking at about one new BLACKJACK customer per year.”
Marty Kauchak in Virginia for MON